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Virtual Reality Apps and Their Rise to Mainstream Status

Marissa Delisle
Marketing Specialist at Digital Turbine
Aug 25, 2017

How VR apps are being used and what's driving their adoption

Virtual Reality (VR) has seen slow movement toward the mainstream.

But that is about to change.

Multiple industries have embraced VR technology for diverse applications – from equipment repair to complex manual assembly processes. The healthcare industry has begun to use VR to train surgeons how to perform difficult surgical procedures on patients.

The diverse use cases for VR have spawned a flurry of activity in VR apps, as developers innovate new ways to use VR technology.

“In 2017, VR/AR use cases continue to proliferate across diverse business categories, with innovators, entrepreneurs and startups leading the way.”

Chris Young, Managing General Partner, Revel Partners, in Tech Crunch “VR’s killer app: business services“, June 2017

The increased pace of innovation in VR can be traced to Matt Bell, the founder of Matterport.

In 2010, Bell was working for a gesture recognition company that used a $50,000 camera and highly skilled technicians to produce Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) files that required a complex application for access.

He envisioned a much cheaper device that could be used to accurately map entire rooms then create 3D models that could be accessed from the Internet. That device became known as Matterport, and it currently sells for about $4,500, less than a tenth of the cost of the gesture recognition camera.

The Matterport camera made it possible for innovators to quickly map any physical object in 3D space.

Use in Industry

The real estate industry was the first to get ahold of this new technology and use it. Real estate agents immediately fell in love with it, and creation of virtual home tours became the new way to market homes to potential buyers.

Other industries quickly learned about Matterport, and jumped onboard. VR app innovation was catalyzed as developers learned how to access and manipulate the 3D objects created with Matterport.

A pause for a bit of clarification is in order, for reasons that will soon become apparent.

Full VR experiences are rather limited in scope. VR games and certain types of training are genuine, full VR. However, most of the VR apps that are being developed are actually a blend of VR and Augmented Reality (AR).

An example of this mixed reality technology is the app ThyssenKrupp elevator technicians use when performing maintenance procedures. The headgear projects overlays onto the actual equipment to guide the technician while performing maintenance.

Relevant technical information is displayed in the peripheral vision areas for quick, hands-free reference while the technician works. As each task is completed, the technician uses a gesture to tap the corresponding virtual checkbox.

VR Video Games

Sophisticated industrial applications are great, but what about gaming?

Substantial VR innovation is still driven by gaming, and shows no signs of slowing down.

But, the cost of entry can be high.

Gamers have found that the HTC Vive can easily bankrupt a gamer of modest means, while the Oculus Rift will leave some bank accounts destitute. The Samsung Gear VR headset has changed up VR gaming with an affordable headset that uses your Samsung smartphone to create an immersive VR gaming experience.

It would be remiss to overlook Google Cardboard, an inexpensive VR headset that delivers an entry-level experience of VR, albeit at a much lower quality than the Samsung Gear VR headset.

High-quality games required sophisticated design and development.

VR has slowed the development of new games by removing the core frame of reference for any game app: the 2D space with its finite dimensions. An infinite 3D space has replaced it, with developers at work trying to figure out how to map gameplay in this new space.

Outside of games, what other consumer VR apps are being developed? VR movies and entertainment are two areas that are already embracing VR technology.

Luxury car manufacturers have also jumped on board with VR apps that let a person test drive a car without traveling to a physical location.

For visual artists, there are a small handful of VR painting apps available that allow you to paint in a way not possible in the physical world.

How VR is Influencing Mobile Apps

“The fundamental idea of virtual reality will cease to exist as a purely sci-fi concept, and instead transform into an industry of real, desirable products used as platforms of the imagination.”

Andrew Abedian,  Level Designer at Survios, Inc.com, “5 VR Trends To Watch

Abedian is right, but innovation will also be for real-world applications where VR training can be used to reduce or eliminate the costs and risks of trainees learning on real equipment and even people.

Manufacturing has quietly integrated VR and mixed-reality technologies into many aspects of the manufacturing process, boosting productivity and improving safety while reducing downtime. App developers are working in partnership with industry leaders to create sophisticated VR apps tailored to use cases for specialized equipment and processes.

As VR gains a greater foothold within multiple industries, there will be many opportunities for industrial VR app developers.

VR Apps: A Case Study

Which industries see VR as the future?

Retail

Retailers are looking to provide consumers with VR experiences that range from room design apps that allow the customer to decorate and furnish a room to virtual walkthroughs of bricks-and-mortar stores before they are even built.

The idea behind virtual walkthroughs is to get user feedback on store layout and other factors so designers can optimize the store’s architecture and layout before construction begins.

Entertainment

Hollywood is already at work developing the next iteration of the movie experience. Directors and producers are looking to completely immerse the viewer in the movie experience.

Few details have emerged on how they plan to accomplish this, but there are already a handful projects the likes of Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, and Ridley Scott are working on.

Advertising

Advertisers seek to find new ways to engage consumers through VR, although it’s a tough challenge.

Traditional commercial breaks from TV are believed to be too disruptive for the VR experience, so they won’t likely be used. The idea is to create advertising that engages consumers without breaking the VR experience.

Media

News outlets have been enthusiastic about VR. With it, they hope to create immersive news experiences that place people in the locations where the action is.

Music

The music industry also sees promise in VR, with the aim of providing concert-goers access to front-seat stage views traditionally reserved for holders of the most expensive tickets.

For artists, VR may open up new ways to monetize their music which will help artists who often scrape by to make a better living.

Healthcare

VR has tremendous potential in healthcare, especially when it comes to surgery. Surgeons can look at virtual renders of stacked 2D scans to spot issues and create a strategy for addressing them before they perform the surgery.

The same technology can also be used to train surgeons in new procedures, providing a virtual experience that eliminates learning while performing the actual surgical procedure. This improves confidence in the surgeon and reduces the chances of a critical mistake during a procedure.

Construction

Architects and designers have discovered that they can design and build virtual models of building without laying a single brick.

Virtual modeling can integrate the physical characteristics of building materials, allowing structural engineers the ability to spot potential design flaws and weaknesses before the start of construction.

Manufacturing

Manufacturing has been the fastest to adopt VR and find innovative ways to use it.

VR allows R&D departments and product developers to create virtual prototypes of products and refine them without having to build physical models.

R&D time is greatly reduced, as are the high costs of prototype development. Shorter product development cycles translate to faster delivery of new products to market.

Travel

Travel agencies are using VR to create virtual tours of popular destinations all over the world. Their hope is that, by giving potential customers an immersive preview, they will buy the actual tour.

The Role of Apps in VR

“But in a world where no moment is too small to record with a mobile sensor, and one in which time spent in virtual reality keeps going up, interesting parallels start to emerge with our smartphones and headsets.”

Mike Wadhera, Carissa.ai, Tech Crunch, “The future of mobile video is virtual reality”, August 2016

Cheaper alternatives to the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift have driven VR app innovation. Combined with the rise of mobile, apps are heavily influencing VR technology and what we can do with it.

The ubiquity of smartphones makes VR technology such as the Samsung Gear VR headset a viable alternative to far more expensive systems in virtually any application.

As mobile continues to spread throughout global markets, more VR apps will be developed to leverage the computing power of smartphones and LTE mobile networks. In some markets, mobile apps may even dominate VR, competing directly with the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.

As VR makes further inroads into every area of our lives, we can expect to see more innovation in VR apps as people look for new ways to use VR in their everyday lives.